The Women Behind Athens’ Buzzing Refugee and Migrant Community

ATHENS—A drop-in center for refugee and immigrant women and girls in the middle of Athens does not sound like it would be a sunny nor a cheerful place. But the Melissa Network is all about breaking stereotypes. The door from the street into the center is wide open (something you don’t see in this neighborhood very often) and walking up the steps to the reception on the first floor of an old mansion, there are loads of posters of women, and inspirational messages like “Hope Lives Here” and “When They Go Low We Go High.” It feels like you’ve entered a safe space filled with promise.

I first read about the center (Melissa in Greek means “bee”)  in the New York Times, so when I recently went to Athens on a reporting assignment, I knew it was a must to check out. One of the main people keeping this hive of activity humming along is co-founder Nadina Christopoulou, who holds a PhD from University of Cambridge. When we arrived, Ms. Christopoulou gave us a tour of the center—which has a number of rooms where classes, lectures and meetings are held upstairs and an open space downstairs that will eventually hold a kitchen for cooking lessons and which already has a large table for people to spread out to work on craft projects—and then invited us to sit outside on their small balcony for tea and homemade cakes.

After joking with some teenage refugees from Syria to slightly turn down the music in a room adjacent to the balcony (they were in the midst of doing each other’s hair and gossiping), Ms. Christopoulou told me a bit about the organization’s main premise– a space to organize women and to promote networking, advocacy and capacity building. “But when we say advocacy, we don’t mean advocacy we are used to, with women going around and repeating the words spoken by men, but with means of expression and strengthening their confidence, so they are storytelling their own narratives that will emerge in a different way.”

About 85% of their staff are from migrant communities and there are now over 40 ethnic backgrounds who use the center, some every day and others from time to time. After we finished tea and met a few of the young women, we promised to keep in touch. In a follow up email interview Ms. Christopoulou expanded upon setting up of the network and the stories of some of the young women and girls who have passed through those open doors. EXCERPTS:

BROWNELL: When and why did you decide to set up Melissa Network?
CHRISTOPOULOU: The idea was simple: to create a bridge that could be shared by migrant women from all over the world living in Greece.  At first, five leaders from different geographical areas  and myself got together to create it, combining relevant expertise and grassroots knowledge. After the initial discussions and planning between us, we liaised with all the communities in order to map the needs, and recruit those interested in becoming active in a common platform. Each one of our leaders dealt with her own community as well as those she had access to in her wider geographical and linguistic territories, leading up to a full-day gathering for thorough discussion and consultation. Given that the [financial] crisis had driven many people out of Greece and had dismantled many of the pre-existing networks and organizations stripping them of their few remaining resources, we prepared for a limited turnover of representatives from 10-12 of those organizations. We ended up having 104 women from over 30 countries show up and declare their willingness to get involved in the creation of a common platform.

It is correct that originally it was set up as an organization to support migrant women?
When working with migration issues on the ground, you can never draw lines between a migrant, a refugee or an asylum seeker. You deal with human beings who have left their homes behind in search of a future ahead. We had just opened our center in July 2015, when the refugee influx increased dramatically. Women from different countries were coming in and out, women who had been living in Greece for a while and couldn’t stand still and ignore the flow outside.  The experience was too close for women who had themselves migrated only a few years before.

But then the refugee crisis really changed the landscape across Greece two summers ago.
When the borders [to the rest of the European Union] were about to close, we started getting contacted by a number of refugee women regarding a vast range of issues, including sexual gender-based violence (SGBV) And so we realized that the frustration of not being able to move any further would lead to desperation and rising tensions, and that the women would be the ones to suffer the most. So we decided that it was time to give up our humanitarian aid campaigns and start practicing what we knew best, start thinking about integration, about the transition from the uncertainty of camp-life into normal life.

Melissa offers a variety of courses–from language lessons to art and cooking–but tell me a bit more about what support you offer women who come to the center?
We tried to create a program based on a holistic, comprehensive approach. It consists of: literacy support (Greek as well as English and other languages), referrals and information, psycho-social support – through individual counseling and group activities with an emphasis on art therapy, art and creativity, skills from first aid to cooking, crafts and coding, advocacy and self-care including stress management and yoga. The vital element in all of the above is that we run a parallel child-care program that allows the mothers to feel comfortable while attending their classes and workshops. We have also recently launched a new project supporting youth-led initiatives with small grants and expert training to create a space of active engagement for our young members and promote leadership and creativity.

How would you describe the women and girls who come to Melissa? You mentioned that a number of them have become real change-makers in their community–going back to the camps and instigating things like art lessons for younger children.
We see women step in with broken wings, after devastating journeys, having gone through wars, immense pain, the whole disorientation of uprooting. Suffering marks their face and uncertainty clouds their eyes. Yet, there is always a spark of hope. And that’s where we start from, that spark. Within the overall context of how this “refugee crisis” has been handled, which is entirely focused on vulnerability, we try to take the reverse angle, to start from the hope that drives this journey. What people dream, what sustains them through hardship, what they deeply desire. The moment you start sharing stories, tracing the similarities, building on each other’s strengths, the transition starts.

Tell me about some of the young women who come to the center.
Saleen* is an 18-year-old girl from the border area between Iraq and Iran. She never went to school but speaks four languages that her mother taught her. She has the word “mother” tattooed on her wrist and a girl with butterfly wings tattooed on her other hand. When she is scared, she says, she brings to mind creatures that are half-human half-animal to console herself.  She already speaks enough Greek to communicate, has found a job, and has made friends even with the people who were suspicious toward her in the beginning. Another impressive woman is 16-year-old Marzia– she is Hazara, from Afghanistan, and grew up as a refugee in Iran where she had only two years of schooling. The experience of being a minority in her own country and a refugee in Iran has shaped her with a sense of double marginalization. She would like to make sure that everyone has access to education, women and men alike, and that people have equal rights. For her it is not jargon, it is precisely what, in her brief life, she has not had. Marzia and her family have managed to travel to Sweden to join her brother through the family reunification program. During their stay in Greece however, Marzia and her sister played an active role in our community life, not only by helping with translation and assisting new members, but also by taking their own initiatives and organizing a range of events. Before leaving, she wrote and directed a short film, paying homage to everything that marked her brief life in Greece.

What are your favorite anecdotes since your founding three years ago?
Fatma, is a young Palestinian woman who was born and raised as a refugee away from her homeland. In the beginning she seemed very weak and timid, and even fainted a few times – a common phenomenon. Very soon however she started opening up and making friends, following the drama therapy groups as well as counseling sessions with our psychologist.  For a person like her, having lived all her life in camps, Athens was the first place where she was living in a proper home. Everybody else was seeing her as a refugee but she was seeing herself, perhaps for the first time in her life, as the opposite. She then confessed that what she loved the most was working with kids, and that having lived her childhood in refugee camps, she had a lot of first hand experience about what kids enjoy doing in such environments. So she came up with a list of about 100 games and creative-play activities that she wrote down beautifully, and offered to help our teachers. Not only did she become their precious teaching assistant, but she organized all the kids and staged two wonderful performances celebrating the beginning of spring. When the time came for her to reunite with family in Berlin, she told us that the first thing she was going to do there was to look for a place like Melissa. “And if it doesn’t exist, I will make sure I make it,” she told us.  This encapsulates our philosophy: we create a beehive community and the positive message spreads, like the bees.

by Ginanne Brownell Mitic

All photos courtesy the Melissa Network: 1) Girl taking part in poetry writing course; 2) Women in the reception areas;  3) Sewing class; 4) Ms. Christopoulou –top right–speaking with women at center (4th photo– Claudia Leisinger;  all other photos courtesy Melissa Network) 

*some names have been changed


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